FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Tim Murray, as much as any general manager, thinks long and hard before trading a draft pick. He’s a scout at heart and knows teams build by getting future prospects.
He really wanted a starting goaltender, though, so the Sabres’ GM sent the No. 21 overall pick to Ottawa on Friday for netminder Robin Lehner and forward David Legwand. Murray polled Buffalo’s scouting staff about the move, and they agreed that the 23-year-old goalie has more potential than anyone they would have drafted with the 21st pick.
“I already knew what I wanted to do,” Murray said at Sabres’ hotel headquarters. “I wanted the answer from them, and it matched what I wanted to do.
“I think he’s a No. 1 goalie. I think he becomes the starter. When I talk about guys that are a starter or a No. 1 center or a No. 3 defenseman or whatever, I mean on a good team. I mean on a contending team. I mean on a competitive team. I mean on a playoff team.”
Murray examined all the other goalies on the market, including the New York Rangers’ Cam Talbot and Vancouver’s Eddie Lack, but he went with Lehner because of familiarity and age. Murray was part of the Ottawa staff that selected Lehner in the second round in 2009. He also likes that Lehner has two years left on his contract (with a cap hit of $2.225 million) and will be a restricted free agent when it expires.
Talbot and Lack will be unrestricted free agents after the 2015-16 season.
“There was a little more of a ‘what if’ after one season,” Murray said. “In saying that, this was our No. 1 guy. He’s younger. We have some idea of what he’s about.
“He wants to be here. He needed a change of scenery and he wants to fight for a starting job.”
Lehner has appeared in 86 games with a 30-36-13 record and .914 save percentage. The 6-foot-5, 225-pounder was limited to just 25 games this season because of a concussion.
“You’re always concerned,” Murray said. “He’s been quiet since then. He’s back in Sweden. He’s gained a little weight, but he’s working out now. He’s been cleared. He says the workouts are going well. He’s excited and has a couple months now to get in tip-top shape hopefully, and I believe he will.”
Ottawa had made it clear that any deal for Lehner would include Legwand, who will be 35 next season in the final year of a contract that pays $3 million annually. He played in 80 games for the Sens this year, recording nine goals and 18 assists. Drafted second overall by Nashville in 1998, Legwand has 223 goals and 604 points in 1,057 games.
The center will play a third- or fourth-line role with the Sabres.
“It’s a team that’s going in the right direction,” Legwand told the Ottawa Sun. “They’re putting the pieces in place to have an organization that’s going to win for a long time. Tim Murray has done a good job building up draft picks and the prospects. Now it’s time to go in there and give them a chance to win.”
The Sabres certainly weren’t going to win without a goalie. Lehner still has much to prove in the NHL, but he was the MVP of the American Hockey League playoffs in 2011 when he led the Sens’ minor leaguers to the Calder Cup. He went 14-4 with three shutouts and a .939 save percentage.
“We certainly had a good team in front of him, but you don’t win without a good goaltender,” Murray said. “He showed he can win and he showed he has a desire to be the best. He’s a talented, big, strong young man who is just scratching the surface. Hopefully, we can bring the best out of him.
“If he was 27, 28 years old, I probably would have taken a step back. He’s young. He fits what we’re trying to do. If it takes this year only to get his feet back under him, I’m fine with that because if we become a competitive team in two years or three years and he’s found his game and becomes what we think he is, it’s the perfect fit.”
By sending out the No. 21 selection, Murray completed a once-unthinkable run. He owned three first-round selections in early February. He kept his own and drafted Jack Eichel. He sent the other one to Winnipeg in February as part of the deal that brought Evander Kane.
“If you would have told me the last day we had the three before the Kane trade that on this day we’re getting Eichel, Kane and Lehner, I would have said you’re on mushrooms,” Murray said. “I would have said, ‘There’s no way that’s going to happen. We’re going to end up with one great prospect and two other good prospects and we’ll see how it goes.’
“I think we’re way beyond that right now, so I’m excited about it.”